The Grammarphobia Blog

Goody goody

Q: I’m fascinated by reduplicatives, especially those whose segments have no particular meaning on their own: “bow-wow,” “choo-choo,” “flim-flam,” “helter-skelter,” etc. I’ve often wondered why we refer to them as “reduplicatives” rather than “duplicatives.”

A: We once wrote a post on the reduplicative copula (“the thing is … is”), a usage that bugs a lot of people. But we haven’t written about the kind of reduplicatives you’re talking about.

In their Dictionary of Linguistics (1954), Mario Pei and Frank Gaynor define “reduplication” as “the complete or partial repetition of an element or elements.” And “reduplicative words” are “words of recurring sound and meaning (e.g., chit-chat).”  

In the 60 years since then, other linguists have defined “reduplication” in other ways. Some, for example, have drawn a distinction between repeated sounds and repeated meanings. But we won’t get into that.

Suffice it to say that “reduplication” is a technical term in linguistics, and that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions for “reduplication” and “reduplicative” used in the linguistic sense are similar to those of Pei and Gaynor. 

But as the OED says, “reduplication” in a more general, nonlinguistic sense simply means a doubling, repetition, or duplication.

So you ask a very good question—why do linguists use the “re-” prefix? If “duplication” means copying something once, then “reduplication” would imply copying something more than once, wouldn’t it?

Well, not necessarily, because “re-” doesn’t always mean “again” or “once more.” Sometimes it implies “back” or “backward,” as in words like “respect” (whose Latin roots mean to look back at), “revoke” (call back), “repay” (pay back), “remit” (send back), “remove” (move back), and others. 

It could be that the “re-” of “reduplication” in the linguistic sense originally had this same meaning, implying “back” instead of “again.” Unfortunately, we can’t say for sure that this is the case; we can only suggest it.

The word ultimately comes from the classical Latin verb reduplicare, meaning to double. (The Latin verb duplicare also meant to double.)

In the Latin of the third century and later, reduplication or reduplicatio came to be used as a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word, according to the OED.

But it’s difficult to tell how the Romans—classical or later—viewed the “re-” in these words, and whether it originally meant “back” or “again.”

As the OED explains, “The original sense of re- in Latin is ‘back’ or ‘backwards,’ but in the large number of words in which it occurs it shows various shades of meaning.”

“Even in Latin,” the dictionary continues, “the precise sense of re- is not always clear, and in many words the development of secondary meanings tends greatly to obscure its original force. This loss of distinct meaning is naturally increased in English, where a word has often been adopted in a sense more or less remote from its original sense.”

In English, “reduplication” has had several meanings since it first entered the language, perhaps as long ago as the early 1400s. Early on, it was used in anatomy and zoology, for instance, to mean a doubling over or folding.

The “reduplication” we’re talking about, the name we now use for words like “mishmash” and “namby-pamby,” came into English in the 16th century. It’s defined in the OED as the “exact or partial repetition of a word, phrase, etc.”

But in some early uses of “reduplication” in this linguistic sense, it meant something similar to “epanalepsis,” a rhetorical device in which a an earlier word or phrase is repeated at some later point. This might be interpreted as a looking backward. Here are two OED citations:  

“Marke heere againe, how the Prophet resumeth his first admiration, by a Poeticall Epanalepsis or reduplication.” (From the undated Atheomastix, a posthumously published religious treatise by Martin Fotherby, 1560-1620.)

Reduplication … is a figure in Rhetoric, when the same word that ends one part of a verse or sentence, is repeated in that which follows.” (From Thomas Blount’s dictionary Glossographia, 1656.)

So it’s reasonable to suggest that “reduplication” in poetry or rhetoric originally meant something like “backward duplication” instead of “repeated duplication.”

The modern linguistics terms “reduplication” and “reduplicative” are derived from those earlier literary and rhetorical uses. But though the words have been handed down intact, today the “re-” seems far removed from the “back” sense and apparently means simple repetition.

Here, for example, is a contemporary citation, from L. J. Brinton’s Structure of Modern English (2000): “In English, reduplication is often used in children’s language (e.g., boo-boo, putt-putt) … or for humorous or ironic effect (e.g., goody-goody, rah-rah).”   

And this OED citation, for the adjective “reduplicative,” is from B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (1959): “A fragmentary self-echoic behavior … may be shown in reduplicative forms like helter-skelter, razzle-dazzle, and willy-nilly.”

In the end, what we’re suggesting is that the “re-” in “reduplication” and “reduplicative” may have originally implied “back” or “backward.” And the modern terms in linguistics have preserved the “re-” prefix even though the meaning of it has changed. That would explain why today the prefix looks redundant.

In our readings about reduplication, we came across an interesting use of the term in art criticism to refer to a visual doubling.

In an essay on photography, the art critic Craig Owens uses the word “reduplication” to characterize a mid-19th-century “double portrait” of a woman who is seen alongside her reflection in a mirror:

“If we speak of this image, and of others like it, as reduplicative, it is because reduplication signifies ‘to reproduce in reflection,’ ” he says in his book Beyond Recognition (1994).

Owens seems to be using the term in the going-back sense to refer to an image seen in reflection. In fact, he draws a parallel to rhetorical reduplication.

“In classical rhetoric,” he writes, “reduplication was a species of repetition, distinguished by the reiteration of a word or phrase within the same part of a sentence or clause.”

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